(& scroll all the way down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Monday, February 22, 2016

“Now, do not be suspecting me of a CODE, I entreat”: Mary Crawford as Jane Austen the author

A few days ago, I pulled together a half dozen posts of mine from the past month and a half, and made the case….. …..for Jane Austen as an audacious alluder to the pervasive sexual innuendoes of Restoration Era comedy, particularly those connected to John Wilmot, the notorious 2nd Earl of Rochester—a shocking inference, but one based on a growing wealth of textual evidence I’ve collected.

My friendly opponent in many such discussions (of my heretical claims about Jane Austen) in the Janeites group, Nancy Mayer, has, as is her wont, raised questions in rebuttal, which I know that a number of other Janeites will also be thinking about as they read my arguments. And so this post gives me the opportunity to respond both to Nancy and to all of those others, in clarifying certain aspects of my claims.

Nancy: “Restoration comedy was around at that time but some were finding it not quite in accordance with their current ideas of propriety and moral behavior. Restoration comedy was the cause of the imposition of the censorship over the theaters. I think there is a reference to Jane Shore in one of her letters.”

Nancy, if you’ve read “A Ramble in St. James’s Park”, the Earl of Rochester’s X-rated poem which I claim Jane Austen integrally wove into the subtext of Pride & Prejudice, and to a lesser extent into Sense & Sensibility as well, you must realize that “not quite in accordance with ideas of propriety and moral behavior” is the understatement of the (17th, 18th, 19th  and 20th) centuries! 

But, if you take a closer look at Rochester’s poem, while its verbiage is very graphic, it is really not that much more “improper” in content than the 16 year old Jane Austen’s Sharade on the “pet” of James the First. Which is another way of my saying that I am certain that Jane Austen, at 37, was still every bit as “improper” as she was at 16!

Nancy:  “However, while I think she did read widely, I think the reading became such a part of her mind that she didn't sort it out as to this piece from Shakespeare, this piece from Dryden, and this piece from the Apocrypha-- I think they were all in her mind as things she knew and experienced along with people she knew and life as she observed it.”

Nancy, it seems to be crucial to your beliefs about Jane Austen that any allusions she made, but especially the “improper” ones, must have been unintentional and unconscious. Given the hundreds and hundreds of examples I’ve collected, and described in my posts over the past 11 years, that is the furthest possibility from what clearly happened, the far simpler and more plausible explanation, which is that in making literary allusions, as in all other respects in her life that we know about, there were no accidents, no slovenliness, no carelessness--- it was all intentional.

Nancy: “It does seem to me that sometimes you appear to show her as spending more time deciding who to copy than writing her stories.”

And once more, you’ve ignored what I have said on that topic, which is that this is not copying (which implies a lack of creativity), it is allusion (which demonstrates a depth of creativity, in being able to weave in prior sources, in a manner that harkens back to the Shakespeare canon and the Bible, both of which are filled from one end to the other with allusions to prior writings.

Allusion is the way great writers who are also great readers pay appropriate tribute to those who inspired them, while at the same time creating their own new stories. That we can trace the profound change in Mozart’s music after he studied Bach deeply, does not make Mozart a copyist, it makes him a self confident genius who knew he was safe in allowing Bach’s genius to saturate his mind, because he would still be Mozart afterwards. The same with Jane Austen and her allusions to the four main sources I detailed in my last post.

Nancy: “That is not only insulting to a majority of the readers but rather elitist. How can one instruct people about one's theme if it isn't readily available to readers. It sounds like someone planning a little in-joke on all the rest of the people who didn't know the secret handshake or code word. There might be many authors who did write books with secret messages for their friends. I imagine they gave them a hint and made the authors feel very clever at putting something over on the rest of the people. However, you contradict yourself. If she was trying to teach female readers to beware of the wolves wearing sheep's clothing, I think she would do it in a manner more accessible by most of the feminine population instead of just an elite few. She spoke of Dull elves only as to knowing who was speaking -- omitting "he said" and "she said". She didn't say she wrote so that a small cadre of readers could feel superior to all others by adding what she didn't write.”

Nancy, as I’ve noted countless times before, Jane Austen was in a Catch 22 situation as an author who had the kind of subversive, authority-undermining goals that she had. In a perfect world, I believe she would certainly have wanted her message to be understood, if not immediately then eventually over time, by as many members as possible of her primary target audience---women.

But she lived in a far from perfect world for female authors challenging male privilege. In early 19th century England, the right-wing political environment in which the relatively tame feminist message of Mary Wollstonecraft had triggered a savage counter-attack on her character after her death in childbirth, Jane Austen knew that her own coded message, much more radically feminist even than Wollstonecraft’s,  needed at all times to retain its plausible deniability.

Plausible deniability would keep JA safe if she were challenged by a suspicious or even hostile reader---who might be someone in her family who felt critical of her being an author at all; or a family friend who believed they were being skewered by one of her comic characters; or a publisher wary of getting into hot water by being the one to give a subversive “unsex’d female” a public forum to spread “Jacobin” hatred toward powerful men; or by a conservative literary critic who’d want to defend male authorial privilege; or even by a government official or a judge who might have picked up, e.g., on the “Prince of Whales” subtext of the charade in Emma, and might then actually prosecute her---as actually happened, as we all know, to Leigh Hunt, in 1812, when his harsh criticism of the Prince Regent became too explicit.

In short, Jane Austen, if suspected of hostility to the status quo of English society, needed at all times to be able to respond, with a totally straight face (or as she would have put it, without losing her countenance),  “Who, me?”  And in that exact same vein, I now suggest that you think of Mary Crawford as Jane Austen’s self portrait as an author, when we read, in Mansfield Park, Mary’s sly and most famous bon mot:

“…Of various admirals I could tell you a great deal: of them and their flags, and the gradation of their pay, and their bickerings and jealousies. But, in general, I can assure you that they are all passed over, and all very ill used. Certainly, my home at my uncle's brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat."

As I’ve previously asserted, in posts such as  “What Mary Crawford REALLY was saying in code to Fanny in Mansfield Park, Mary was trying to warn Fanny that brother William was going to have pay a very dear price for his naval commission, in the form of having to first serve up his own “rear” to the “vices” of that circle of pedophilic admirals (and possibly to Henry Crawford as well). And by the way, I also believe that Jane Austen as she wrote that scene in MP, had on her radar screen Samuel Pepys, the great diarist and social observer of the Restoration Era, who was, in his capacity as a secretary to the British Navy, been both an observer, and also perhaps a participant, in that very same specific form of corruption and vice.

But, on a metafictional level, Mary also symbolizes Jane Austen the punning, winking, hinting author, who wants to thread the needle of getting her warning out, but disguising her warning enough to elude the censors who would silence her completely if they knew for sure that she was really saying what she seemed to be suggesting.

And there are other reasons for the longstanding preservation of the secrecy of the Jane Austen Code. .Jane Austen, I am certain, did get a major kick out of constructing her double stories – it is an astonishing achievement from a literary point of view—like Mozart’s 6-part polyphony in the final minutes of the final movement of his final symphony, the “Jupiter” – he was showing that he could do Bach nearly as well as Bach himself. What artist would not revel in such an achievement? She was showing that she could adapt Shakespeare’s theatrical shadow stories to the exciting new medium of the novel, where she could take advantage of her infinitely subtle narrative voice to enhance the ambiguity of her fictional worlds.

And finally, we also find a very significant clue in the sequence of Jane Austen’s novel publications that she realized herself, as she went along, that she had initially overestimated the ability of women (who in her time lived in the shadows of a man’s world and had to learn to communicate around its edges, as a survival tactic) to decode her novels. Here’s that clue--as I (and also Diane Reynolds) have written, Emma, which is the last major work JA completed before she began to suffer the effects of the illness that eventually killed her, is very different from her three previously published novels in one crucial aspect—it has the famous “Gotcha!” of the revelation in Chapter 49 (out of 55) of the secret relationship between Frank and Jane.

That” Gotcha!” sprung on her readers was Jane Austen’s way of telling them, without saying it explicitly, that she was capable of hoodwinking them for nearly the entire length of a novel, hiding clues to a major hidden plotline in plain sight in dozens of different places in the text, and then splashing cold water on the reader’s face with the revelation that then necessitates a rereading in order to see all the hidden clues. She was Agatha Christie before Agatha Christie existed—and, indeed, Christie learned her detective writing skills from Austen first and foremost.

If JA could do it once, alert readers could realize, she could do it twice—but she kept the second “Gotcha!” implicit, in the shadows. So, in a nutshell, the first “Gotcha!” of Emma is that Jane has had a covert relationship with Frank. But the second “Gotcha!” is that Jane is pregnant, and needs to find a place for her baby after she is born---and, as I’ve been saying for 11 years now, Jane does find a place for her baby girl---in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Weston, who pretends to be pregnant near the end of the novel!

So, in a very real sense, if you think about it, that second “Gotcha!” is a major expansion of Mary Crawford’s winking bon mot.

But then, the biggest reason why it took nearly 200 years for Jane Austen’s shadow stories to be discovered (by me), is what happened right after her death. The final chapter of Jane Austen’s authorial career is a tragic one on multiple levels, but none more so than that before her remains even had a chance to start to moulder in her grave, her family, led by brother Henry, had already initiated emergency damage control. Once JA’s own voice was forever silenced by death, they successfully hoodwinked the world for nearly two centuries into thinking that “Aunt Jane” was really the doe-faced, pious, humble little country mouse we see in James Edward Austen-Leigh’s ubiquitous bowdlerized image of his aunt….
  ….instead of the steely-eyed, determined, fiercely independent genius Cassandra actually sketched in 1810:

And that, above all, is the reason why the secret of Jane Austen’s shadow stories remained largely intact for nearly two centuries, and after millions of copies of her novels had been read (and often reread many times) around the entire world. And the ultimate irony of all of this is that it is totally in keeping with Jane Austen’s core epistemological message---which is that, generally speaking, people only see what we expect to see. The Myth of Jane Austen was so successfully sold to the reading public that it has decisively shaped, and continues to do so even to this very moment, mainstream interpretation of JA’s writing.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Christina Boyd said...

"Plausible deniability" indeed.